How To Talk About Video Games Online
How do you talk about art whose meanings and values change depending on the actions of the viewer? And, what does your analysis say about you, the reviewer? Published on Wed, Sep 11, 2019. Written by Michael Bassili.
I originally spoke (however briefly) about this in my feature on Deus Ex (2000), but I felt that there was more to say. The very act of talking about something like a video game is pretty weird; it’s like talking about how the board game Monopoly makes players feel while they’re playing. You can mention its mechanics or its gameplay loop, but the way a player feels is subjective and fluid, changing depending on a variety of factors. And, not all of them can be snugly placed into categories.
The least-obvious variable is the lens with which the reviewer (or some dumb-dumb like myself) approaches the game. I could create a million examples where two different games journalists review the same game but recall different experiences, but let’s try just a few.
I greatly enjoy the game Bayonetta. It’s got tight, rewarding combat, expressive visuals, yadda, yadda. It also features a scantily-clad female protagonist. This opens up the possibility for interpretation from the consumer/reviewer.
One could approach Bayonetta from the lens of feminist theory. In this lens, one could say that the game objectifies the game’s protagonist in such outlandish and offensive ways that it overwhelms all who attempt to simply enjoy it for the combat. They could mention that the game is full of these partially-nude female characters who wield large weapons and jiggle around the game space. A competent reviewer would be able to separate the good gameplay from their opinions on the game’s presentation. Now, this is a valid response to the game based on the selected viewpoint of the reviewer.
One could also approach the game from a more positive feminist angle. Instead of representing women the way Marvel movies represent Black Widow’s character (i.e. by having her devoid of personality in favour of a character whose entire existence boils down to “being good at combat” and “being strong”), the reviewer could praise Bayonetta for deeply fleshing out its female character roster. So much so, that the character of Bayonetta puts most other female video game characters to shame with her personality, quirks, charm, and faults. Bayonetta is an example of a female character that’s as outlandish and real as many of the great male characters, such as Solid Snake. This would also be a valid response to the game.
Both of these lenses are feminist-oriented, but they differ in their conclusion. The first is highly critical of the game as a whole because of some perceived offences the game makes relative to the player. The second is similar in content but boasts a more positive outlook on the game and its intentions. Both chose to analyze the game from the framework of feminist theory, and both came to different conclusions based on their framing of the game.
The important thing to get from this is that every games journalist does this to some capacity, whether the lens is feminist theory or auter theory. I’ll give another example.
Metal Gear Solid is the perfect game series to use when talking about auteur theory because its director, Hideo Kojima, no longer works with Konami. And, since his departure, Konami has published the unbelievably terrible Metal Gear Survive (2018). This game is a slap in the face to anybody who saw any value in the Metal Gear Solid games, myself included. But, it serves as the perfect showcase of how an auteur like Kojima affects the games he produces.
Approaching Metal Gear Solid 3 from the lens of auteur theory, one could start by mentioning the obnoxious weapon aiming system. To aim and fire your pistol, you need to physically move Snake into a position where he can see his enemy, hold one button to draw your gun, hold a bumper button to aim down the sights of the gun, and then release the first button to fire the weapon. This is different from other 3rd person action games which see you aiming and shooting with different triggers while moving the character with your stick. Snake can’t move conveniently (i.e. the same way as you do when you’re not trying to shoot your pistol), so you’re forced to seriously plan your gun interactions. While some may dismiss this as bad game design, the lens of auteur theory helps us see that Kojima wanted to incentivize stealth and de-incentivize shooting. This is a stealth game after all.
Another approach could be the lens of Marxist theory, where the game is seen to progress, not by the actions of Snake, but the actions of the collective cast of characters, and their environment. In this framing of the game, Snake is simply reacting and interacting with the game world as things happen outside his control. The bombing of Soviet land by Volgin pushes the US government to send someone in to clear their name. Snake plays barely plays a role in this happening; Volgin may have bombed his own country even if Snake never confronted The Boss on the rope bridge.
These two approaches are both correct, and they both expose a facet of the game that the other lens may have excused. You can do this kind of analysis with any game, I think, as long as it’s nontrivial in scope and implementation.
So where am I going with this? Well, I ultimately want to explain my approach to talking about video games. The articles that I write aren’t topical (i.e. “Deus Ex (2000)” instead of “How Deus Ex Used Linear Storytelling To Deceive The Player”). I deliberately try to talk about games in a handful of different, complementary lenses so that the sum of their analyses form a coherent, interesting, and informative piece. Rather than simply stating the absolutes of the game, like its information and gameplay loop, I try to come at the game from a more distinct and creative angle. If you wanted a summary of Deus Ex, you could read the Wikipedia article on the game. I’m a “journalist” so I need to bring more to the table than simply its description. This is also why I don’t assign ratings to games, but that’s a topic I’d like to cover another time.